Column: Street lessons in climate governance

Written by Arunabha Ghosh | Updated: Dec 19 2009, 01:28am hrs
Theres a lot of anger and frustration around Copenhagen these daysand the snow isnt helping. On Monday it took me 8.5 hours of standing in sub-zero temperatures to get registered. This was after I was only about fiftieth in line and had shown up at 6.45 am (thousands more were standing behind me). No official came out to explain what was happening, there was no food, no drink and no rest. By Tuesday, rationing had been introduced. The UN was distributing secondary passes to each observer institution (from universities to NGOs to business groups), which would, in turn, ration the passes to their registered members. By Wednesday, all additional registration was barred, pass or no. By Thursday, an alternative venue was found where non-official delegates could congregate and, hopefully, ease pressure. As I write this well past midnight, I have received a message that a grand total of 100 non-governmental participants will be bussed in from a secret location on Thursday and Friday; everyone else can enjoy the snowstorm outside! Meanwhile, major hotels around the city stand barricaded. Patrol boats with police divers in wetsuits zip around the waterways (though that didnt prevent a Greenpeace boat from making an appearance). And police and protesters will likely continue to confront each other. Any international regime goes through several stages, from agenda-setting and negotiations to implementation, monitoring and enforcement. What lessons do the events in Copenhagen have for climate change governance

Lets take participation and agenda-setting. Who sits at the table matters for the legitimacy of an institution. It also affects the efficiency of discussions. Climate talks face the same dilemma both inside and outside the Bella Centre. The so-called walkout by developing countries on Monday was partly because some of them felt they were not privy to draft texts that the major players were discussing. Outside in the cold, thousands wanted to be in, not only to observe what was going on but also to set whatever agenda each organisation fervently believed in. Some seemed legitimateresearch institutions with credible records, experts helping governments draft laws and investors seeking to increase local capacity for renewable energy. Others seemed a bit out of place like the 17-year-old school kid ahead of me, who said she was there because her teacher knew someone who knew someone who could register her. She confessed, I dont really know what the UNFCCC is all aboutitd be nice to find out! I wondered why she didnt just read up on Wikipedia; it would have meant one less person in a crowd of thousands. And once I made my way inside, there was a circus: anti-nuclear protesters, pro-vegan diehards, an angry mermaid, daily fossil prizes for the most obstructionist governments, even Christmas carol singers! International regimes face a similar cacophony of messagesheads of states making their statements this week have come with different agendas. But when there are so many messages, there is perhaps no clear message.

Then there are negotiations and rule-making. The UN seems as unclear about limiting participants as it is about limiting emissions. The caps on delegates to the biggest climate conference came after days of confusion. Was this not anticipated For months we have known that thousands of people might show up. For weeks we have known more exact numbers. And still the Danish hosts and the UN have been caught unawares. Will negotiators turn similar blind eyes to the growing scientific evidence on climate change and the dangers it poses What kind of crisis will it take for the worlds leaders to act Unlike Hollywood films, the seas will not rise overnight, glaciers will not melt in a week and rainfall patterns will not change in a season. The climate crisis will unfold incrementally and hit the poor disproportionately. When the risks become impossible to ignore, what measures will they take Will there be a cap on emissions like the UN has capped participants What will be the basis of such a cap How will the burden be distributed

That brings us to implementation, monitoring and enforcement. If this level of mismanagement had occurred in a developing country, we would have heard complaints about poor governance and calls for capacity building. Climate negotiations expose similar concerns. On one hand, rich countries want poorer ones to commit to national plans that would be internationally monitored and verified. In turn, developing countries argue that: (1) they need financial support to implement their plans and (2) rich countries should implement their commitments and non-compliance should be punished. The challenge for international regimes, particularly on climate change, is how to build the institutions that would effectively monitor all parties and establish processes that would fix responsibility. No responsibility has been fixed yet for the chaos in the streets of Copenhagen. Similar lessons and concerns continue to haunt negotiators working on a deal to confront the worlds biggest collective action problem.

The author is Oxford-Princeton Global Leaders Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University